It has been announced that Art Bell has died in his home in the United States at the age of 72. Bell was one of the radio pioneers of the late 20th century and became the first major radio personality to explore topics that others simply would not touch.
His radio show Coast to Coast AM debuted in its classic format on US radio in 1988. The show began at a time when US talk radio was becoming increasingly deregulated in terms of political content controls, but while many used this opportunity to talk more politics, Bell did something different. Bell realised that there was an untapped reserve of intelligent, amusing and at times bewildering group experts and ordinary callers with an interest in the paranormal, government conspiracies, extraterrestrials, ghosts, space travel, apocalypticism, clairvoyance and political cover-ups of all of the above. What’s more is that Bell’s show was accessible even to sceptics or those with no particular interest in the topics he and his guests would discuss.
It was Bell’s ability to take the ‘unusual’ and broadcast it to a cross-sectional audience that was one of the main areas of his genius. He was able to attract a combination of true believers who ate up every theory presented by his guests (including the contradictory ones), those who disbelieved everything (including guests who were traditional scientists) and most importantly those who were both educated and entertained by a combination of the enlightening, the absurd and the curious. Art Bell’s show encouraged people to question everything and few could walk away from his broadcasts without questioning at least something they once thought they had figured out.
Art Bell’s broadcasts were one part magic show, one part investigative detective work on a literally universal scale, one part fantastical insight into the minds of people shunned by other broadcasters and all parts thought provoking. He was to late 20th century radio what Orson Welles was to early 20th century radio in more ways than one.
When interacting with his guests, Bell was never one to seek confrontation or cheap points. All callers and guests were treated with respect in-line with the scientific tradition of enquiry, as well as in the tradition of civilised free speech, irrespective of the nature of the topics.
While many remember Bell most for his heterodox guests, my favourites were always the skilled scientists, former government workers who had gone intellectually ‘rouge’ in terms of personal interests and counter-cultural icons whom Bell allowed to discuss issues that they were not able to do on other outlets. Although I listened to his shows for decades, I have my favourite moments. Bell occasionally had guests from the world of art, politics, pop culture and entertainment who were not normally associated with his regular guests. One such broadcast was when Bell hosted what may well be the most lengthy and in-depth interview ever with comedian, political satirist and social critic George Carlin. If you ever wanted to hear about why George Carlin accepts the possibility of intelligent life in the universe while rejecting religion, as well as classic banter between two larger than life characters, this is your opportunity.
One of the subjects that Bell discussed with great frequency was something known as Remote Viewing. In layman’s terms, Remove Viewing is a scientific/pseudo-scientific process whereby various methods are applied to achieve the effects of what one would colloquially call clairvoyance. While I personally believe that such methods will not produce anything beyond that which is possible through educated guesswork and an intuition grounded in logic and experience, what was fascinating about Bell’s discussions with professional Remove Viewers was that a concept that seems conspiratorial and fantastical was actually developed and funded by the US military for over three decades. Thus, that which is often derided as pointless or conspiratorial in daily life, is actually something that the US government took very seriously for a long time. This was a common theme across many seemingly bizarre matters that Bell discussed with an open mind.
Then there was the moment when Art Bell announced to his listeners that Steve Irwin, the animal expert known the world over as The Crocodile Hunter died after being jabbed in the chest by a stingray. This was the second saddest thing I ever heard Bell say while on air. The sadness was shared by me as a listener. It was also deeply touching that for a man more prone to talk about space than earth, Bell was as moved by Steve Irwin, someone who brought animals into homes around the world via televisions screens, as much as he was moved by anything else.
Of course the saddest I had ever heard Bell when on air was when his Filipina wife Ramona died in 2006. At this point, Bell was ready to walk away from radio forever, after having previously walked away twice only to rapidly come out of retirement. However, Bell was soon blessed, as he happily called it, by the presence of another Filipina woman called Airyn Ruiz whom Bell wed in The Philippines.
Bell spent several years living and broadcasting from The Philippines, a culture he came to know and love deeply. Sadly, while living in The Philippines, the Inquirer newspaper printed a hoax story which claimed that Bell had privately written an anti-Filipino rant. Bell was devastated by the lie and eventually the Inquirer published an apology and retraction.
He and his wife Airyn then moved back to the Nevada desert in the US where they would spend the rest of Bell’s life together. Over the last decade, Bell’s work became more sporadic although he officially launched a new show Midnight in The Desert in 2015 when he became disillusioned with the political overtones that his successor on Coast to Coast was taking with a format that under Bell was ideologically ecumenical.
Midnight in The Desert was alas cut short when a violent stalker threatened his family and even fired gunshots at Bell’s home where he lived with his wife and children. Bell died on the 13th of April, 2010 after months of poor health. He leaves behind Airyn and four children.
Art Bell was a broadcasting legend who was impossible to hate, even if his content was often difficult for many to grasp or even take seriously. Bell’s show was never about his guests being correct or incorrect, it was about creating an engaging and intriguing atmosphere where people were allowed to question anything without facing ridicule or ostracism.
Bell’s good humour, his undeniable on air charm and his intelligence made him a unique character. In an age when straying from the corporate mainstream is becoming more and more difficult, the world may never see the likes of Bell again – certainly not on terrestrial radio. Art Bell was an original in a world of clones who could make any subject interesting and gave a platform to the ‘open minded sceptics’ and the ‘sceptics with an open mind’.
Rest in Peace Art Bell – you are now with the stars.